From the first time I watched it, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 seductive spy thriller/love story Notorious has been the first thing that comes to mind when that adjective is applied to anything.
Ingrid Bergman at the height of her beauty coupled with Cary Grant at the height of his would be enough to make any movie memorable. She plays a spy who has fallen in love with her recruiter (Grant) and is tasked with seducing a Nazi living in post war Brazil.
Although this titillating plot line is handled in the taste required of the period, the sexual tension between the two stars is palpable throughout the movie. There’s one scene that involves them kissing for more than two minutes, but it manages to comply with the Production Code rule that lips couldn’t be locked for more than three seconds. The result wouldn’t have been more erotic if Bergman and Grant had played it stark naked.
The words “famous” and “notorious” have always been the opposite sides of the same coin, at least in my mind. The former implies at least some degree of accomplishment while the latter suggests something slightly unfavorable. To my English major mind, words like “infamous,” “notoriety,” and “enormity” with similar connotations as “notorious” should be used only in connection with their negative shadings, even though it is not strictly wrong to use them in a broader sense.
The first time I heard the moniker “The Notorious RBG” applied to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that negative association seemed jarring as an adjective sitting next to her monogram. With its nod to the Notorious B. I. G. and a bit of reflection, it ultimately made sense that badassery for good would make “notorious” the absolutely right choice for her.
When one’s initials stand alone to replace one’s name, iconic status has pretty much been conferred. FDR, JFK, LBJ, RFK—no names needed, just letters. Reducing in this way demonstrates cultural confirmation, even a certain gravitas, to anyone so designated.
In that vein, I don’t know who first called her AOC, but Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lucked out when too many of her detractors (and a fair number of supporters) used that nickname for her. It’s likely that its widespread use is based, not on respect or affection, but rather on being too damned lazy to learn her name. But in any event, she’s AOC now whether anyone likes it or not.
But Justice Ginsberg went one step further getting “notorious” added. I’ll still love that Hitchcock movie, but she now owns that word. Imagine someone saying, “She’s notorious for her witty comebacks.” And we’ll all be like, “Yeah, maybe, but she’s no RBG.”
There is one thing I will take issue with about the Notorious RBG. She said, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed” in a statement dictated to her granddaughter just days before her death. Forgive me, Notorious (if I may call you by your first name), but I don’t think that’s possible.
Certainly Trump isn’t going to replace you. If Biden is elected and becomes the 46th president, he isn’t going to replace you either. Hell, if Hillary Clinton were president today, neither would she.
Someone new will join the Supreme Court, and someone will sit in your chair. Someone will fill the vacancy you left, and someone will be your successor.
But, replacement? No chance. You and your accomplishments have launched a thousand memes. You’re action figures, Halloween costumes, and bobblehead dolls. You’re a documentary, a movie, and an opera. You’re on coffee mugs, t-shirts, and Saturday Night Live. You’ve done more for the jabot than anyone, including Beau Brummell.
Americans across the country felt gut-punched at the news of your death, particularly in this current political climate. You knew before we did that a whole new level of drama was about to be layered on top of the craziness of these times. As usual, you weighed in on this important “replacement” issue in that statement made to your granddaughter, anticipating what is unfolding right now.
So it’s up to us now to mind the gap left by losing the Notorious RBG and filling it, not with someone else, but with ourselves.